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Dan Shaughnessy

Greg Stiemsma as Bill Russell? Really?

Tommy Heinsohn says new center reminds him of Celtics great

The Celtics’ Greg Stiemsma fought for the ball with the Pistons’ Jason Maxiell on Dec. 30. Adam Hunger/REUTERS

Eleven days. Five games played. And already the kid is a cult hero.

How long before they name the New Boston Garden after Greg Stiemsma?

He’s the new Brian Scalabrine. He’s the new Greg Kite. He’s the new Kevin McHale.

He’s the new (gulp) Bill Russell?

Stiemsma has heard it all. Not bad for a guy who most recently played for the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the D-League.

Not bad for an undrafted center who averaged a whopping 3.5 points per game in his senior season at Wisconsin, a 26-year-old NBA rookie who played last season for Telekom Ankara in Turkey.


“He’s knows exactly who he is,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “That’s what I like most about him. You don’t get that from a lot of young players.’’

The 6-foot-11-inch Stiemsma made his first NBA start Monday night against the Wizards. Surrounded by a supporting cast of Hall of Famers, he connected on 5 of 7 shots, scored 13 points, and grabbed 7 rebounds in a 100-92 victory.

He also blocked two shots, which got the attention of Comcast commentator Tommy Heinsohn. Stiemsma has 13 blocks in his first five games. Heinsohn said Stiemsma’s shot-blocking technique reminds him of Russell.

Mike Gorman, Heinsohn’s broadcast partner, was speechless when the goofy comparison was made, but you could hear Gorman’s jaw drop on the broadcast table. It was the same for just about everyone watching.

Yikes. Bill Russell and Greg Stiemsma? Perfect bookends, right? Like Bobby Orr and Lyndon Byers. John F. Kennedy and Jack E. Robinson. Paris and Fitchburg.

Heinsohn wasn’t backing off before last night’s 89-70 Garden blowout of the New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets.

“His timing and how he goes about blocking shots does remind me of Russell,’’ said the Celtics legend, who for his entire NBA career was Russell’s teammate. “He makes guys commit, he’s quick to his leap, and he gets his hand up there right when the ball is leaving the shooter’s hand.’’



But Bill Russell? If it wasn’t coming from Tommy, it would be downright sacrilegious. Russell is the greatest winner in the history of sports, copping 11 championships in 13 NBA seasons and never losing a seventh game.

Heinsohn knows Russell’s greatness firsthand. They were rookies together with the Celtics in 1956-57. It’s a little-known fact that Heinsohn was actually NBA Rookie of the Year in Russell’s rookie season. (Russell’s arrival in Boston was delayed by the Melbourne Olympic Games.) Big Bill made up for lost time and the Celtics won their first NBA championship in the spring of 1957.

“I heard about the Russell remark from a waiter at dinner last night,’’ laughed Rivers. “I was just shaking my head. Who’d want to live up to that expectation? My goodness.’’

Stiemsma heard about it, too, from his parents and friends back in Wisconsin.

“A couple of my buddies told me they were watching on TV and heard that,’’ said Stiemsma. “I don’t want to get too far ahead in my comparisons here. That’s a whole other level - obviously one of the greatest centers ever to play the game. Even the slightest comparison is a little bit of a stretch, but at the same time it’s an honor, too.’’

Has he seen grainy black-and-white footage of Russell playing for the Celtics?


“When I was in Turkey, one of the only English-speaking channels was an NBA channel,’’ said Stiemsma. “Hardwood classics and stuff. They played some old games once in a while and I saw some highlights from back in the day.’’

. . . when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and Russell and Heinsohn roamed the parquet floorboards.

Heinsohn isn’t the only Celtic great going overboard with praise for Stiemsma. After Monday’s win, Kevin Garnett said, “He can block shots . . . like no one I’ve ever seen.’’

Stiemsma came back to earth last night, subbing for Jermaine O’Neal and having little impact in the win (1 point, 5 rebounds, and 1 block in 12 minutes).

Count Cedric Maxwell as one who thinks we need to dial it down a bit on Stiemsma.

“I guess he’s a combination of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale,’’ Max said, sarcastically. “I mean, we’ve practically got him in the Hall of Fame in Springfield. Let me state the obvious. He’s white. Let’s give him a chance to succeed or fail on his own.’’

“Nobody thought this kid could do anything,’’ insisted Heinsohn. “He’s a tremendous surprise. He doesn’t need to be great. He just needs to be a factor.’’

“He does a lot,’’ added Rivers. “He tries to block shots every time. He’s a good rebounder, if you set him up he can make shots. He never tries to do more than he can do.’’

Knows who he is. Doesn’t try to do more than he can do. Doc sounds like Bill Parcells talking about Vinny Testaverde or Troy Brown.


“Everybody on our team is starting to come into their own,’’ said Stiemsma. “If I can come in and look to block every shot that I can and play solid defense and rebound, that’s going to be my role. Hit my shots when I’m open and take shots when I’m open.’’

And his cult status?

“I haven’t been downtown a lot,’’ he said. “But I’m looking forward to experiencing the city.’’

He should visit City Hall Plaza first. That’s where they’re scheduled to dedicate a statue to Bill Russell later this year.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.